A terrifying shadow hangs over director Peter Jackson as the first of three installments of his Hobbit adaptation opens in theaters around the world. It’s not the shadow of Sauron—it’s the shadow of George Lucas, the fallen filmmaker who built a godlike reputation on a blockbuster epic fantasy trilogy and then destroyed it with an over-ambitious and widely reviled prequel trilogy. Here, indeed, there be dragons.
In adapting The Hobbit, Jackson—along with co-writers Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens, and Guillermo del Toro, who was originally slated to direct the film—is doing the opposite of what he did with his instant-classic Lord of the Rings (2001-2003). There, J.R.R. Tolkien’s three sprawling books were reduced to three manageable (though still sprawling) motion pictures. Here, one compact story is expanded to a three-movie marathon.
For comparison, my edition of The Lord of the Rings runs 1,215 pages—which, even with the Extended Edition, clocks Jackson’s adaptation at a brisk 1.8 pages per minute. The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey runs 169 minutes; if each of the next two installments is as long, that’s a crawling 0.6 pages a minute. In other words, The Hobbit trilogy will take about as much time to watch as it would take to read the entire book aloud from cover to cover.
The result is that rare thing: a book adaptation that will outrage more purists for what it puts in than for what it leaves out. Most conspicuously, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey inserts an entire new storyline featuring an avenging orc with a motive cribbed from J.M. Barrie, as well as a subplot featuring a crusty little earth-wizard. The dwarf-elf interspecies beef is also given a fuller treatment than it gets in the book, and the dwarves’ stay at Rivendell—a quick pit stop in the book—now includes a sort of Middle-Earth Justice League summit where Gandalf and other heroes gather for the grave and noble purpose of exposition. The dwarves’ escape from the goblins, an episode told in quick retrospect in the book, becomes a huge setpiece with Jackson’s camera zooming among underground walkways in shots that will remind you of Indiana Jones’s mine-cart ride in The Temple of Doom.
Jackson, of course, has earned his license: his Lord of the Rings films have gained such a following that, in nerd terms, they’ve become almost as canonical as Tolkien’s books. An Unexpected Journey shows Jackson still in full command of his storytelling powers; he is truly the heir of Lucas and Spielberg when it comes to the delicate integration of thrills, chills, laughs, and gasps. For all Jackson’s statements about his Hobbit having a different tone than the earlier films, the continuities are much more striking than the differences—a fact that will delight Lord of the Rings fans.
Perhaps the single most significant departure is Jackson’s decision to shoot The Hobbit not just in 3D, but in HFR—that’s High Frame Rate, meaning that at appropriately equipped theaters, you will see 48 frames per second rather than the customary 24 frames per second, a standard that hasn’t changed since The Jazz Singer.
I saw an HFR screening, and it’s no gimmick: more so than high-def, more so than IMAX, more so than even 3D, the high frame rate produces a qualitatively different viewing experience. Though it’s technically higher quality, among moviegoers who have seen An Unexpected Journey in HFR, social-media buzz has been overwhelmingly negative. Why?
A common observation is that it often makes the movie look like an HDTV show instead of a movie, which was my impression as well. There’s no doubt that the HFR gives a greater illusion of reality, and that’s exactly the problem. Seeing The Hobbit in HFR feels like walking onto a movie set rather than watching a movie; if you’ve ever seen movie props in real life, you’re familiar with the strange feeling of disenchantment you may experience during parts of An Unexpected Journey. The HFR projection is so detailed that conventional filmmaking techniques, developed in the 24-frame era, now look artificial.
The difference is most apparent in the interior scenes: Bilbo’s hobbit hole looks like it’s illuminated by extensive theatrical lighting, which of course it is. The dwarves’ prosthetics look like prosthetics, which of course they are. The situation is quite different with computer-generated elements: the CGI Gollum, who looked a little cartoonish in the original trilogy, now looks as real as the actors.
From a special-effects standpoint, future filmmakers will learn from The Hobbit, both as an inspiring example of what’s possible and as an awkward example of what’s no longer possible once this bridge has been crossed. I don’t think we’re going back, though: filmmakers will adapt, and filmgoers’ expectations of what a movie looks like will change, as they’ve changed before when we learned to love CGI, and when we got used to color.
For now, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey in HFR looks like nothing else you’ve ever seen in a movie theater. That’s sometimes distracting, but it’s also appropriate for this unique film, which is perhaps the biggest “event movie” since George Lucas released The Phantom Menace 13 years ago. That film featured a similarly distracting push of the technological envelope, but what saves Jackson from Lucas’s dismal fate is Jackson’s skill as a storyteller.
Jackson’s complete command of his medium is manifest in every one of the 486,720 frames of An Unexpected Journey. (That’s 15 frames per word, if you’re still doing the book-to-movie math.) Though overstuffed, the film never feels bloated; it zings along from episode to episode and leaves you wanting more. The casting is pitch-perfect; Jackson was right to schedule filming around the availability of the humbly noble Martin Freeman, who feels like a definitive Bilbo Baggins. Richard Armitage is—let’s be real—no Viggo Mortensen, but as Thorin Oakenshield, he makes a pretty damn hot dwarf. When Bilbo opens his door to Armitage with the latter’s grey-streaked hair blowing in the wind, you almost expect the other dwarves to cry out like Antonio Banderas’s mariachi band on Saturday Night Live. “No, no! Please! Too sexy! Too sexy!”
The final shot of An Unexpected Journey is a master class in fantasy storytelling. It looks great, yes, but it’s not the photorealism of the HFR CGI that makes the shot work so well, it’s Jackson’s understanding that $450 million of special effects don’t mean anything if you don’t use them as well as Tolkien used the two-shilling pencil that wrote the words, “There was a most specially greedy, strong and wicked worm named Smaug.”